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From the NHL to minor hockey, Brian Willsie still loving the game at all levels

Former Guelph Storm star and NHLer Brian Willsie coaches his son in Guelph Minor Hockey as well as working in player development for the Colorado Avalanche

Like most coaches in minor hockey and minor sports organizations, Brian Willsie and his coaching and support staff with the Guelph Minor Hockey Association’s peewee A rep team want their players to have the best possible experience in their chosen sport.

A Guelph Storm graduate whose professional career included parts of 10 seasons in the NHL, Willsie now the director of amateur player development with the Colorado Avalanche and he combined that with coaching minor hockey.

“I started with my oldest boy Owen and spent three years coaching him. I’ve since moved back to my second oldest, Braden,” Willsie said. “I really enjoy it and I have a great support cast of different coaches and parents to help out and I think the boys enjoy it as well. It’s a pretty rewarding thing to do.”

He’s been coaching minor hockey since brining his professional playing career to an end following his 14th professional season in 2014-15.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “The kids, they’re receptive, they’re fun and it kind of brings me back to grass roots when I was growing up in Belmont and you were excited to get to the rink for practices or games or whatever it might be. Things like tournaments were even more exciting because you could play more hockey. I’m excited every time I come to the rink, whether it be for work or for playing myself or coaching these kids.”

Willsie and his team won their category in the weekend’s Power Play Tournament.

“It’s exciting,” he said of the tournament in general. “You get to play at home and it’s a big tournament. There are a lot of teams from a lot of areas and you play teams you don’t usually play. The kids get pretty excited because they get to play in the Sleeman Centre and there’s a lot of friends and family around.”

However, it won’t be his team’s only tournament of the season as they’ll be in one in Michigan next week.

“We generally do a big tournament out of town,” Willsie said. “Last year we did Lake Placid. Some of my other sons have done Pittsburgh or Chicago or Notre Dame. We try to do an over-nighter so between the two tournaments you do in a year, the kids get pretty excited about them.”

And they always bring back memories of his minor hockey days, although he didn’t play in many tournaments that were so far away that hotel rooms were required.

“I remember it was a big deal if we had one over-nighter the whole year. In my town (Belmont), most of our tournaments we were driving back and forth to Parkhill or Watford or somewhere on the 402. These ones, the kids are pretty fortunate as the parents come up with ideas to make them experiences for the kids. Next week we’re in Michigan at a tournament and we’re going to a Red Wings game so it’s pretty awesome what the parents are doing for these boys.”

Willsie played three seasons with the Storm in the old Memorial Gardens and had 95 goals and 83 assists in 186 regular-season games.

“It was just the culture we had of winning. I came in and it was there when I got here. Just to be able to come to a team where the expectation was that we were winning and we were a top team. We were humble, but had a bit of a swagger to us.

"Going to the Memorial Cup my first year and winning the OHL championship my last year and going to another Memorial Cup and the support you got from the town in that old arena, it was pretty fun. I have great memories with teammates and I’m still pretty close with a lot of the teammates I had back then. The good culture and the winning created that.”

Competing in two Memorial Cups during his time in major junior hockey is pretty special, something he didn’t realize at the time.

“You don’t. You’re a young cocky kid that just wants to play hockey. At the time you’re thinking that this is normal. When it really hits you is when you go to your first year as a pro and your new teammates are coming from other OHL teams, WHL teams, the Q and you tell them your stories and they say they played three or four years in the WHL and never made the playoffs. It really hits home how fortunate we were to have that leadership group of Jim Rooney, Mike Kelly, to really instill in us the value of becoming good characters and good teammates. That helped all of us in our pro careers. At the time you don’t realize it, but you’re thankful now looking back on it.”

After being drafted in the sixth round of the 1996 NHL draft, Willsie turned pro with the Hershey Bears, the Avalanche’s American Hockey League affiliate, in the 1998-99 season and then made his NHL debut the following season.

“I spent a full year and a half in the American League with the Hershey Bears. I signed with Colorado and halfway through my second year I was called up to play in the United Centre against the Chicago Blackhawks. I went up for one game that year and I lined up for my first faceoff against Bob Probert on left wing. I played a solid game and had fun. I got sent down again the next day and spent another year and a half in the American League and then finally in my fourth year pro, I made Colorado at the training camp and I played a full year up with Colorado that year.”

Despite the amount of time he spent in the AHL prior to making it full time in the NHL – he played almost 200 AHL regular-season games – Willsie never had any second thoughts about pursuing his goal of playing in the NHL.

“Someone once told me that it’s not when you get there, it’s being ready when you get there,” he said. “It’s difficult to make it and it’s more difficult to stay. I worked on improving every year. I had great American League coaches that taught us how to be pros and when I finally got there, I was ready.”

Staying in the NHL meant a bit of a change in his game.

“When I got there it was a yearly battle to stay in the league and you had to do what you had to do to stay there. There was a little bit of role acceptance. I was a scorer in junior. I was a scorer in the American League, but to stay in the NHL, I was a checker. I was a third- or fourth-line guy and I accepted that. I knew I had to do that to stay there so you work your hardest to do that and it allowed me to play a few more years that if I hadn’t have accepted that role, I would never have done that.”

In all in his NHL career, he played in 381 regular-season games and had 52 goals and 57 assists.

After his NHL career wound down, Willsie spent three more seasons in the AHL with the Lake Erie Monsters, Hershey and Hamilton Bulldogs before heading overseas for three seasons in Europe.

“My wife Kelly and I, we always knew that we wanted to go to Europe both for the hockey and the life experience,” he said. “We spent time in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and then Croatia playing in the KHL. It was an experience I loved. I loved the hockey and I loved the life experience. We travelled around quite a bit. Our kids played hockey and went to school over there and just really got an education in life and what things are like in Europe.

“You don’t want to say it, but it’s something like a paid vacation. They’re paying you to play hockey in their country. You’re still a professional so you’re playing your hardest because you want to earn that next contract, but at the same time you’re touring around. We toured around all of Europe – Finland, Sweden, France and we went to Africa.”

Now he’s still touring around, but it’s to see players drafted by the Avalanche as their director of amateur player development. Wherever Colorado drafts a player from, Willsie will go see him play with his amateur club several times a season whether that draft pick is playing in the OHL, WHL, QMJHL, NCAA or Europe.

“From when he’s drafted until he signs, I’m out there watching him, mentoring him, developing him. I’m on the ice practising with him whenever available and I’m just trying to help him get his game from an amateur level to a professional level.”

It’s something else that Willsie finds very rewarding.

“It’s something that I went from playing right into and I enjoy it immensly.”

And he draws on his professional hockey experience to guide the would-be NHLers.

“Being a player that was one year up or down eight or nine times from the NHL to the American League, a six-round pick that maybe wasn’t supposed to make it per se, I use my experiences from when I played and give it to those young prospects to help them out. It’s very rewarding when you see them sign that first NHL contract, make their way through their professional career in the American League and then eventually make the Avalanche.”

But combining that job, one that can be pretty flexible, with coaching peewee rep hockey in time can lead to some hectic days. Take Friday, the first day of the PowerPlay tournament as an example.

“I watched my atom play at 8 in the morning, coached two games and then jumped in the car and drove to Cornell (Ithica, N.Y.) to watch one of our prospects and then drove back. (for a tournament game 11 a.m. Saturday).”

And it all felt well worth it Sunday afternoon at the West End arena when his team hoisted a Stanley Cup-like trophy in victory.